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When Whistler submitted The White Girl to the Paris Salon in 1863, the tradition–bound jury refused to show the work. Napoleon III invited avant–garde artists who had been denied official space to show their paintings in a "Salon des Refusés," an exhibition that triggered enormous controversy. Whistler's work met with severe public derision, but a number of artists and critics praised his entry. In the Gazette des Beaux–Arts, Paul Manz referred to it as a "symphony in white," noting a musical correlation to Whistler's paintings that the artist himself would address in the early 1870s, when he retitled a number of works "Nocturne," "Arrangement," "Harmony," and "Symphony."

Whistler used variations of white pigment to create interesting spatial and formal relationships. By limiting his palette, minimizing tonal contrast, and sharply skewing the perspective, he flattened forms and emphasized their abstract patterns. This dramatic compositional approach reflects the influence of Japanese prints, which were becoming well known in Paris as international trade increased.

Clearly, Whistler was more interested in creating an abstract design than in capturing an exact likeness of the model, his mistress Joanna Hiffernan. His radical espousal of a purely aesthetic orientation and the creation of "art for art's sake" became a virtual rallying cry of modernism.


upper right: Whistler. 1862


Sold 1866 by the artist to his half-brother, George W. Whistler [d. 1869], London, but retained possession; bequeathed to his wife, Mrs. George W. Whistler [d. 1875]; sent 1875 by the artist to her son, Thomas Delano Whistler, Baltimore, Maryland; sold 28 February 1896 for Thomas D. Whistler by (Boussod Valladon & Cie, New York) to Harris Whittemore [1864-1927], Naugatuck, Connecticut; sold 1897 to his father, John Howard Whittemore [d. 1910], Naugatuck, Connecticut; bequeathed to the J.H. Whittemore Company, Naugatuck, Connecticut, with life interest to John Howard Whittemore's daughter, Miss Gertrude B. Whittemore [d. 1941], Naugatuck, Connecticut;[1] gift 1943 to NGA.

Exhibition History
Morgan's Gallery, London, 1862, no. 42, as The Woman in White, cat. untraced.
Ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, gravure, lithographie et architecture, refusés par le Jury de 1863, et exposés, par décision de S. M. l'Empereur, au salon annexe (Salon des Refusés), Palais de Champs Elysées, Paris, 1863, no. 596, as Dame blanche.
Possibly The Artists' and Amateurs' Conversazione, Willis' Rooms, London, 1863, as The Woman in White.
Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Martinet's Gallery, Paris, 1863.
Universal Exhibition, U.S.A. Section, Paris, 1867, two catalogues: no. 68 and no. 75, as The White Girl.
Charity Art Exhibition, Academy of Music, Baltimore, 1876, no. 43, as "A Girl in White".
Loan Collection of Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1881, no. 60, as The White Girl.
The Union League Club, New York, 1881, cat. untraced.
Loan Collections, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1894, no. 252, as The White Girl.
Loan Collections, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1895, no. 253, as The White Girl.
Loan Exhibition of Portraits for the Benefit of the Orthopaedic Hospital, National Academy of Design, New York, 1898-1899, no. 254, as The Woman in White.
Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler: Oil Paintings, Water Colors, Pastels, & Drawings, Copley Society of Boston, Copley Hall, Boston, 1904, no. 71, as The White Girl.
Memorial Exhibition of the Works of the late James McNeill Whistler, First President of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, New Gallery, London, 1905, no. 37, as The Woman in White, Symphony in White, No. 1.
Oeuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905, no. 4, as Symphony in White No. 1, The White Girl.
Paintings in Oil and Pastel by James A. McNeill Whistler, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1910, no. 3, as Symphony in White I: The White Girl.
Pictures of People, 1870-1930: A Loan Exhibition for the Benefit of Hope Farm, M. Knoedler and Co., New York, 1931, no. 4, as The White Girl.
American Painting and Sculpture, 1862-1932, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1932-1933, no. 113, as Woman in White.
Possibly Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists [opening exhibition], Grand Central Galleries, Fifth Avenue Branch, New York, 1933.
A Century of Progress Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, 1934, no. 433, repro. 66, as The White Girl.
Oils, Water-colors, Drawings and Prints by James McNeill Whistler, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1934, no. 4, as The White Girl.
Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition of the Cleveland Museum of Art: The Official Art Exhibit of the Great Lakes Exposition, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1936, no. 377, repro. LXXV, as The White Girl, Symphony in White, No. 1.
Exhibition of Paintings, The Tuttle House, Naugatuck, Connecticut, 1938, no. 42, frontispiece.
Art in Our Time: an Exhibition to celebrate the Tenth Anniversary of the Museum of Modern Art and the opening of its New Building held at the time of the New York World's Fair, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1939, no. 45, as The White Girl.
Golden Gate International Exposition, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, May-September 1940, no. 1221, as The White Girl, repro.
Modern Masters from European and American Collections, Museum of Modern Art, New York, January-March 1940, no. 1, as The White Girl, repro.
Old Masters and Modern American and French paintings from the San Francisco Exposition, and the Los Angeles County Fair, and from individual dealers, The Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, October-November 1940, no cat.
Paintings from the Whittemore Collection, Mattatuck Historical Society, Waterbury, Connecticut, 1941, no. 35, as The White Girl.
De Gustibus...An Exhibition of American Paintings illustrating A Century of Taste and Criticism, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1949, no. 15.
Diamond Jubilee Exhibition: Masterpieces of Painting, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1950-1951, no. 65, as The White Girl.
Sargent, Whistler and Mary Cassatt, Art Institute of Chicago; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1954, no. 94, color repro., as The White Girl: Symphony in White, No. 1.
American Classics of the Nineteenth Century, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1957-1958, no. 51, as The White Girl (travelling exhibition, 5 venues, shown only in Pittsburgh).
The Chester Dale Bequest, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1965, unnumbered checklist.
James McNeill Whistler, Art Institute of Chicago; Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York, 1968, no. 3.
From Realism to Symbolism: Whistler and His World, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1971, no. 12, as The White Girl (Symphony in White, No. 1) (organized by Columbia University).
Amerikanische Malerei des 18 und 19. Jahrhunderts, Orangerie of the Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin; Kunsthaus Zürich, 1988-1989, no. 67 (organized by Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Berlin).
James McNeill Whistler, Tate Gallery, London; Musée d'Orsay, Paris; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1994-1995, no. 14, repro.
Loan to display with permanent collection, Museum of American Art of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1995-1996.
Loan to display with permanent collection, The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1997-1998.
The Victorians: British Painting in the Reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1997, no. 28, color repro.
America: The New World in 19th-Century Painting, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, 1999, no. 125, repro.
After Whistler: The Artist and His Influence on American Painting, High Museum of Art, Atlanta; The Detroit Institute of Arts, 2003-2004, no. 1, repro.
Americans in Paris 1860-1900, The National Gallery, London; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006-2007, no. 19.
The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900, Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Musée d'Orsay, Paris; California Palace of the Legion of Honor, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2011-2012, unnumbered catalogue, pl. 14.
Tuckerman 1867, 486.
Way, T.R., and G.R. Dennis. The Art of James McNeill Whistler: An Appreciation. London, 1903: 26.
Bénédite, Léonce. "Artistes contemporains: Whistler." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 33-34 (1905): 233, 507, 510-511, pl. V.
Isham, Samuel. The History of American Painting. New York, 1905: 333.
Cary, Elizabeth Luther. The Works of James McNeill Whistler: A Study, with a Tentative List of the Artist's Works. New York, 1907: 37-41, repro.
Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Joseph Pennell. The Life of James McNeill Whistler. 2 vols. London, 1908: 1:94-98, 102-103, 140-141, 144, 157.
Paintings in Oil and Pastel by James A. McNeill Whistler. Exh. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1910: 3-6.
Duret, Théodore. Whistler. Translated by Frank Rutter. London, 1917: 14-16, 20-22, 45, 148 (original edition, Paris, 1904).
Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. The Whistler Journal. Philadelphia, 1921: 4, 144.
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Masterpieces of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1944: 162, color repro., as The White Girl.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1956: 56, color repro., as The White Girl.
Bouton, Margaret. American Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1959 (Booklet Number One in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): 32, color repro., as The White Girl.
The National Gallery of Art and Its Collections. Foreword by Perry B. Cott and notes by Otto Stelzer. National Gallery of Art, Washington (undated, 1960s): 26, as The White Girl.
Sutton, Denys. Nocturne: The Art of James McNeill Whistler. London, 1963: 36-38, fig. 6.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 292, repro., as The White Girl.
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:494, color repro., as The White Girl.
Sutton, Denys. James McNeill Whistler: Paintings, Etchings, Pastels, Watercolours. London, 1966: 10, 47-48, 187, color pl. 25, pl. 29, detail.
Sweet, Frederick A. James McNeill Whistler. Exh. cat. Art Institute of Chicago, 1968: 54, color pl. 3.
American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 122, repro., as The White Girl.
Fleming, Gordon. The Young Whistler. London, 1978: 171-174, 189-191, fig. 23.
Newton, Judith Vale, and Margaret F. MacDonald. "Whistler: Search for a European Reputation." Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 41, no. 1 (1978): 150-152, fig. 2.
Taylor, Hilary. James McNeill Whistler. London, 1978: 27-29, color pl. 5.
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 259, repro.
Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 9, 16, no. 42, color repro.
Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, and Robin Spencer, with the assistance of Hamish Miles. The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler. 2 vols. New Haven, 1980: 1:17-20, no. 38; 2:pl. 28, 369, 370.
Johnson, Ron. "Whistler's Musical Modes: Symbolist Symphonies." Arts 55, no. 8 (April 1981): 164-168, fig. 1.
Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: repro. 128, 130.
Curry, David Park. James McNeill Whistler at the Freer Gallery of Art, Exh. cat. Freer Gallery of Art, 1984: 38-43, color repro.
Stein, Donna. Whistler. New York, 1984: 9-10, color pl. 3.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 558, no. 849, color repro.
Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 142, no. 48, color repro.
Fink, Lois Marie. American Art at the Nineteenth Century Paris Salons. Cambridge, 1990: 230-231, 264, 79-83, 102, color pl. 7.
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 379, repro.
National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 238, repro.
Anderson, Ronald, and Anne Koval. James McNeill Whistler: Beyond the Myth. New York, 1994: 106-109, 133-135, color pl. 4.
Craven, Wayne. American Art: History and Culture. New York, 1994: 343, fig. 23.17.
Dorment, Richard, and Margaret F. MacDonald. James McNeill Whistler. Exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London; Musée D'Orsay, Paris; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. London, 1994: no. 14, 76-78, color repro.
Chaleyssin, Patrick. James McNeill Whistler: The Strident Cry of the Butterfly. Bournemouth, England, 1995: 22-26, color repro.
Koval, Anne. Whistler and His Time. London, 1995: 32-36.
Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. New York, 1997:239, color fig. 145.
Adler, Shane. “Whiteness." In Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. Edited by Helene E. Roberts. 2 vols. Chicago, 1998: 2:939.
Merill, Linda. The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography. Washington D.C., Freer Gallery of Art, 1998: 43-50, fig. 1.2, repro.
Spencer, Robin. "Whistler's 'The White Girl': painting, poetry and meaning." The Burlington Magazine 140, no. 1142 (May 1998): 300-311, repro.
Torchia, Robert Wilson, with Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998: 238-244, color repro.
Funnell, Peter, et al. Millais: Portraits. London, National Portrait Gallery, 1999: 113, 114, 116, repro.
L'Enfant, Julie. William Rossetti's Art Criticism: The Search for Truth in Victorian Art. New York, 1999: 180-181, repro. fig. 4.6.
Bruson, Jean-Marie, and Fischer, Diane P., eds. Paris 1900: Les Artistes Américains à l'Exposition Universelle. Exh. cat. Musée Carnavalet, Paris, 2001: 35 (not in the exhibition).
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 336-337, no. 271, color repro.
Brock, Charles. Charles Sheeler: Across Media. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington; The Art Institute of Chicago; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, 2006-2007. Washington and Berkeley., 2006: 14, fig. 3.
Søndergaard, Sidsel Maria. Women in Impressionism: From Mythical Feminine to Modern Woman. Exh. cat. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Milan, 2006: 118, 124 fig. 100, 132 n. 26.
Whistler and Russia. Exh. cat. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow; State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg. Moscow, 2006: repro. 23.
Goldin, Marco, ed. America! Storie di pittura dal Nuovo Mondo. 2 vols. Treviso, 2007: 1:379, repro.; 2:146.
High Society. American Portraits of the Gilded Age. Exh. cat. Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg. Munich, 2008: 69, 70 fig. 10.
Explore This Work

She looks grandly in her frame and creates an excitement in the artistic world here.... In the catalogue of this exhibition it is marked ‘Rejected at the Academy.’ What do you say to that? Isn’t that the way to fight ’em!

James McNeill Whistler on the exhibition of The White Girl at Morgan’s Gallery, London, 1863

James McNeill Whistler worked furiously on The White Girl during the winter of 1861–1862, rising at 8:00 each morning to paint. His model was his mistress and frequent companion, Joanna Hiffernan, a well-known beauty who also modeled for other artists of the day. Whistler lived in Paris at the time, but painted the canvas specifically for submission to the 1862 Royal Academy of Arts exhibition in London, an annual event juried by a group of artist-academicians whose choices could make or doom an artist’s career. For the 27-year-old  Whistler, who was still establishing his reputation, The White Girl was meant to demonstrate his talents to the world. He was cruelly disappointed when he visited the Academy galleries a week before the salon opened to the public, searching room after room of paintings for his work, until at last he found it leaning against a wall amid the rejects. He consoled himself with the thought that “she was still beautiful.”

The picture was shown about a month later at Morgan’s, a commercial gallery in London, with the “rejected” designation. There it attained some notoriety, savaged in the press as “bizarre” and “incomplete.” The painting continued on this path: rejected by the 1863 Paris Salon, it ended up in the Salon des Refusés, a protest exhibition organized by Gustave Courbet of paintings spurned by the French Salon jurists. Shown alongside the similarly scandalous with Déjeuner sur L’Herbe by Édouard Manet, The White Girl became known as one of the exhibition’s most infamous pictures.

Flouting the conventions and standards of portraiture,The White Girl made 19th-century viewers distinctly uncomfortable. The woman pictured wears an informal cambric (lightweight cotton or linen summer fabric) housedress of a type worn in private. Her red hair is loose, contrasting vividly with the tonal white interior setting and dress. Gazing impassively, her expression is vacant and unfocused—she does not charm us, yet rivets our attention. She stands on a wolf or bearskin rug whose fierce appearance contrasts with her own blank look, and flowers drop languidly from her hands to the floor. To viewers of the period, these attributes made Hiffernan’s worldliness and lack of innocence explicit and shocking.

Whistler later appended the title with “Symphony in White: No. 1” (there were eventually three paintings in the series) to focus attention on what he viewed as the painting’s true subject: his handling of the thick white paint, its textures, and subtle tonal contrasts. The painting’s radical break with traditions of portraiture make it a bellwether of modern art.

About the Artist

James McNeill Whistler preferred expatriate life in London and Paris to his country of birth, finding a congenial artistic atmosphere in Europe. Whistler was gregarious, and his circle included a wide group of artists, Édouard Manet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Henri Fantin-Latour, Gustave Courbet, and Claude Monet among them. 

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Whistler spent a relatively short period of his life at home in the United States, then lived in Russia and England during his formative years because of his father’s professional obligations as a military civil engineer. During that period, Whistler began receiving formal instruction in drawing, attended lectures at London’s Royal Academy of Art, and studied the work of other artists. Upon returning to the United States, Whistler enrolled at West Point Academy, following in his father’s footsteps. There, he continued to demonstrate his talents in drawing, but he was ultimately dismissed from the academy in 1854 for “deficiency in conduct and chemistry.”  Following a brief attempt to work in the railway industry, Whistler moved to Europe to pursue artmaking.

In Paris, he studied drawing alongside Edgar Degas and then painting at Charles Gleyre’s studio. His work did not garner much attention until Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl caused its commotion in 1862–1863 in both London and Paris. The painting marked a transitional moment in Whistler’s career when his interest in a loose and abstract style, and experiments with color, form, and texture began to supplant his pursuit of realistic forms of painting. 

Whistler experienced another round of notoriety in the 1870s when he began painting the groundbreaking Nocturne series of Thames River views. Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1875, captured the effects—atmospherics and impressions—of fireworks over the river rather than a concrete image, a subject that was radical for a public accustomed to more traditional forms of painting. Critics attacked, and John Ruskin famously likened Whistler’s art to the act of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” The artist sued for libel and won, but his reputation was damaged, and he suffered financial difficulties. A timely commission to create a portfolio of etchings of Venice took him to Italy. Returning to England the following year, he was able to rebuild his reputation and achieved great renown and success during the 1880s and 1890s, his work sought by collectors and museums alike. He died in London in 1903 and was the subject of a memorial exhibition in Boston later that same year.